The Bulletin Board
Advocates, law enforcement, DCYF call for defeat of Sununu Center legislation
Child Advocate Cassandra Sanchez is leading an effort to defeat an amendment to a House bill she said would put more juveniles in the Sununu Youth Services Center. (Annmarie Timmins | New Hampshire Bulletin)
This story was updated March 22, 2023 at 3 p.m. after the House moved a vote on the bill to Thursday.
Lawmakers and advocates who are often at odds over legislation united Wednesday against a bill amendment they say would inadvertently land more children at the Sununu Youth Services Center.
“What (the amendment) did in theory was it tried to limit the number of cases in which a juvenile could be detained,” said Rep. Jess Edwards, an Auburn Republican who will lead the effort to defeat the amendment on the House floor. “So we would have had the unintended consequences that would have hurt kids.”
He spoke at a Wednesday press conference called by the Office of the Child Advocate. The House is expected to vote on the bill Thursday morning.
The Office of the Child Advocate is leading the fight against the amendment to House Bill 49 with the backing of Republican and Democratic lawmakers and groups ranging from New Hampshire Legal Assistance and NAMI New Hampshire, to law enforcement and the head of the Division of Children, Youth, and Families.
They laid out their concerns in a letter to House leadership signed by 34 people, most of whom work with juveniles. They raised similar concerns after a House Finance Committee passed the amendment last week, but not as a united front as they did Wednesday.
They argue the bill would jeopardize the state’s efforts to reform juvenile justice in a few ways.
It would eliminate the lower level offenses that currently make a juvenile eligible for the Sununu Youth Services Center. In doing so, that could inadvertently lead law enforcement to bring more – and more serious – charges to ensure they can hold juveniles with safety concerns until the state can arrange a community-based alternative placement. That change would give law enforcement and judges less discretion to divert a juvenile from prosecution to therapeutic rehabilitation, they said.
The letter noted that following 2021 changes to state juvenile justice laws, the Division of Children, Youth, and Families recommended 72 percent of the juveniles it assessed receive diversion instead of prosecution. Law enforcement agreed with those recommendations 94 percent of the time, it said.
Advocates also argue that the amendment would place damaging limits on staffing ratios and the center’s operating budget.
“Unnecessary charging enhancements can have a long-term detrimental effect on a child, including increased likelihood that the child will remain detained pending prosecution, increased likelihood of committment to (the Sununu Youth Services Center) if convicted, and increased likelihood of negative criminal consequences as an adult,” the letter said.
The Legislature fast tracked a bill earlier this year that extended the March deadline to close and replace the 144-bed Sununu Youth Service Center, a secure facility for court-involved juveniles ages 13 to 17. The center typically has about 12 juveniles at any given time.
If the House defeats the amendment to HB 49, the bill would focus on laying out the requirements for a smaller, more therapeutic center.
The amendment, sponsored by Rep. Bob Lynn, a Windham Republican, passed the House Finance Committee 23-2. But even he doesn’t support it. Lynn said his amendment was an attempt to defeat a competing amendment that he considered more damaging. He stood with Edwards, Child Advocate Cassandra Sanchez, and others at Wednesday’s press conference, calling for its defeat.
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